I used to begin every writing class I taught with a memoir assignment. I don’t do that anymore. But, instead of simplifying and straightening up my assignment line up, it’s complicated things.
I used to rationalize the memoir project with the question: Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves? Turns out, about half my students, half the time. The semi-default use of “personal writing”–telling your story, writing a narrative, a memoir, throwing off the oppressive constraints of academic discourse–as a window into writing, a way to engage students in the collective ethos of the class doesn’t always hit the ball out of the park for my first year writing students. And while I believe in all those things–in giving my students a window into writing, in engaging them, in demystifying the writing process–if that were the only reason I was teaching personal writing, it wouldn’t be enough.
An ongoing debate in my field of Composition Studies, particularly when it comes to the writing classroom, is whether or not personal writing has a place there. If you are of the opinion that yes, students should engage in personal writing in their college writing classes, you may be nastily called an Expressivist, in a similar way that art critics named “the Impressionists.” If you are of the opposite opinion, you might be asked rather snarkily if you even really care about students. Either way, “personal writing” usually becomes over-simplified to refer merely to an “autobiography” or “autoethnography” assigned as the first essay in a composition class.
As Elizabeth Wardle argues in her article ““Mutt genres” and the goal of FYC: Can we help students write in the genres of the university?” what we end up doing in composition courses is creating “general” (read “only found in writing courses”) genres and assignments, like the “autoethnography,” designed to mimic or teach “skills” that students can transfer to the rest of their academic experience, and we end up just teaching them mutt genres that are strange and not actually very useful. So, how useful is that designed-to-engage personal writing project? I’m still not exactly sure.
What I do know is that there is truth in Ira Shor’s assertion that students are very savvy at constructing their “in-school” identity, whether by choosing their seats on the edges of class, or by separating out their “real selves” or “real lives” as far from the education experience as they can. This kind of division of self is, at best, unhealthy, at worst, a form of cognitive dissonance that serves as both coping mechanism, and barrier to knowledge transfer and deployment of ideas in real-world contexts. A way to counter this separation is, potentially, asking students to write personally, to write “themselves” into the academy.
There is also the argument that “academic discourse” is not as free from the personal as “they” (whoever “they” are) would have us believe. Candace Spigleman argues just that in her book Personally Speaking: Experience as Evidence in Academic Discourse. Asking how the personal can find a place in academic writing, Spigleman employs feminist and traditional rhetoric to point out the advantages of blending personal writing and academic discourse, to better prepare students for writing in multiple contexts–indeed, many of the actual contexts they might write for in the academy. Such contexts as my own discipline, where blurred, blended, and otherwise hybrid genres have been growing in ascendency for years. However, the balance between personal disclosure and academic ethos is difficult to strike, and Spigleman notes that “…a revealing self-disclosure can fortify an academic argument,” but it can also, “distract from the from or confuse the terms of the debate” (17), so it must be taught carefully.
However, in the same way that Shor admonishes us that setting up our students’ desks in a circle or collaborating with them on a rubric does not automatically make our class “democratic,” “dialogic” or “free,” so too teaching personal writing does not automatically engage students in the writing process, demystify the writing process, or enrich their arguments. Yet, acknowledging and explicitly teaching ways to write the personal are, in my view, increasingly necessary in a culture blooming with blogs, tweets, “styled” and photoshopped instagram pics and other personal disclosures like algae on a lake.
My own personal teacher-coping-mechanism for this contested little pedagogical space? I tend to lean toward Spigleman and her call to teach the personal, the experiential, as one part of a rich, complex writing practice. A “tool in one’s toolbox,” as my friend Thomas would say. Experience can be evidence, or a personal discourse community can be a research site. As Spigleman describes, “this blended approach creates useful contradictions, contributes more complicated meanings, and so may provide greater insights than reading or writing either experiential or academic modes separately” (3). So, things actually have gotten more complicated for me when it comes to personal writing in my composition classroom. And you know what? I kind of dig it.